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Liturgical Submission

by Gary D. Penkala

We have a very popular section of our Musical Musings feature called CNP Feedback, wherein readers submit questions (anonymously), which are answered with a lot of truth and a touch of humor. We recently received an inquiry that doesn't necessarily fit into the Feedback format, but which deserves some attention. Hence this article on Liturgical Submission.

I. Upholding the "Constitution" — the GIRM

The following came to me from a fellow musician:

Regarding the use of organ during Lent, and your poignant words about it being a sacrifice not to play any of the beautiful Lenten organ works at Mass — I'm very grateful for your unswerving dedication to this. It is amazing how much that directive of Holy Mother Church (as well as the similar directive for funerals) is ignored. There are certainly many organists in Catholic positions who have little regard for Church teachings and rubrics, being mainly in it for the music and the money. I also know many devoted Catholic organists who otherwise do everything "by the book," following the rubrics to a T, who still can't abandon the solo organ music during Lent and at funerals.

General Instruction of the Roman Missal We, as Catholic church musicians, need to uphold the "rules" of the trade, at the very minimum. Beyond that, we should strive to understand those rules and promote them among those we supervise, to teach them to the faithful, and, if necessary, to gently enlighten those clergy who may be unaware. That's a tall order!

Fortunately, there are clear rubrics and guidelines to be found in the "owner's manual" for the Liturgy. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM] contains the teaching of the Church on how her Liturgy is to be celebrated. Just as the highest government officials, when they begin their term of office, swear to "uphold the Constitution," so too should every parish priest and music director swear to stand by the rubrics in the GIRM.

These rubrics, having evolved for over two millennia from the liturgical practices of ancient Israel, have been honed and crafted in a way to effectively bring the People of God to encounter the pillars of liturgical action: the glorification of God and the sanctification of man. Ignoring these can be the height of hubris; thinking we know better than the Church. I knew a priest who, as part of his Lenten practice each year, reread the entire GIRM — not a bad idea for priests and musicians! It is certainly true that musicians make judgments so that the repertoire and traditions suit the needs and tastes of each parish, but these cannot be in opposition to what the Church wants. The brilliant pastor and music director will fully implement the rubrics of the Missal, exploring the variety of options that already exist in the book. Then just stand back and let the compelling historical evolution of the Rite shine.

II. Submitting to Authority

But there's the rub. Often, priests and musicians are an inflated crew. We have the training, we have the expertise and experience, we know it all. It takes true humility to back away from our egos — to submit to a higher authority. But that, in particular, is fundamental to the Christian life.

Christ himself is the source of the Church's authority.

The New Testament shows that Christ deliberately created his Church to be the vehicle of his continuing mission in the world. He promised to remain present in his Church for all time, and he lovingly guides it through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

To ensure the success of this mission, Christ gave his Church the ability to teach, govern and sanctify with Christ's own authority. The Apostles appointed successors to ensure that the Gospel would continue to be handed on faithfully as "the lasting source of all life for the Church" (Vatican II, Lumen gentium 20; also Catechism #860).

The source and guarantee of this Church authority is Christ's continuing presence in his Church — "Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:20).

The purpose of this authority is to give the Church the ability to teach without error about the essentials of salvation: "On this rock, I will build my Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it." (Mt 16:18).

The scope of this authority concerns the official teachings of the Church on matters of faith, morals, and worship (liturgy & sacraments). We believe that, because of Christ's continued presence and guarantee, his Church cannot lead people astray with its official teachings (which are distinct from the individual failings and opinions of its members, priests, bishops, and popes) [from].

So, when confronted with a liturgical decision about how to proceed, a dose of humility is in order. Put aside some of those wildly "creative" ideas, hold back on the persistant need to be innovative, fend off the emotional peer pressure from every side — just read the rubrics and chart the proper path forward. Very often, these decisions are difficult to implement, especially when they contradict what we may have held dear in earlier years. For an organist to put aside the glorious Lenten music of J.S. Bach and Johannes Brahms takes formidable sacrifice. I've experienced that pain myself — the music is breathtakingly beautiful! And so is a steak on Friday, and sleeping in on Wednesday, and forgoing that calorie-laden dessert on Monday. Sacrifice is an integral part of our Catholic existence. Why should our parish musical life be different?

III. A Brief Checklist

So, here's a brief checklist of rubrics with profound meaning and symbolism that are often overlooked. None of them are impossible to implement; it just takes action. Don't ignore such simple directives.

  • Maintaining a noble simplicity in the Roman Rite [GIRM #42]
  • Striking the breast during the Confiteor at "through my fault …" [Order of Mass #4]
  • Singing, even recto tono, the priestly dialogues at Mass [GIRM #40]
  • Reserving the ambo for Scripture readings (and other prescribed texts, like the Exsultet) [GIRM #309]
  • Using only the Responsorial Psalm text from the Lectionary or Roman Gradual [GIRM #61]
  • Bow of the head at the names of the three Divine Persons, and at the names of Jesus, Mary and the saint of the day [GIRM #275a]
  • Profound bow during the Nicene Creed at " …and by Holy Spirit was incarnate …" [GIRM #275b]
  • Avoiding Eucharistic Prayer II on Sundays [GIRM #365b]
  • Not accompanying the priest on Presidential prayers [GIRM, #32]
  • No organ music during Lent, except to accompany singing or on Laetare Sunday, solemnities and feasts [GIRM #313]
  • No flowers during Lent, except as above [Roman Missal: Lent #4]
  • Fostering some silence within the Liturgy [GIRM #45, 56]
  • Giving Gregorian chant pride of place [GIRM #41]
  • Using the musical treasures of the Church's patrimony [GIRM #41, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy #116]

Perhaps I can sum up with a quote from the original question itself:

We are a Church of rules and every time a rule is broken, the Church is hurt — even if it's by way of a seemingly innocuous Bach prelude during Lent or a Gerald Near postlude at a funeral. And small transgressions always lead to bigger ones. Likewise, when congregants witness musicians (or priests) ignoring the rules, it can lead them to think "Well, why do I have to do the right thing then? Maybe I won't go to church today." Then it becomes, "Maybe I won't go to church this month," and moves onto "I'll stop bringing my kids to church" and finally "I won't even bother living my life by Church teachings." Many have noted that it is not just a coincidence that decreased attendance and moral authority of the Church over the last few decades have accompanied a lax approach to the liturgy.

The solution: stay close to the Church, on which ground we have immense wisdom and authority to do what is right. Jesus himself gives the example: "Then after singing psalms of praise, they walked out to the Mount of Olives." [Mt 26:30]

Article written 19 March 2019

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